Facts & Hope

The current issue of Wired has a must read story about about the campaign to make people fear immunization, and what it means for society. It’s a sobering story, and hits on some things that bug me a ton – notably the idea that journalists need to cover both “sides” of a debate, regardless of how fact free one of the “sides” is; the way that people often confuse “fact” w/ “strongly held opinion” and the gradual death of appreciation for the scientific method. And as we head full steam into flu season, the topic couldn’t be more relevant.

In clear and devastating prose, writer Amy Wallace sketches out the framework of the so-called immunization “debate” and lays bare the research that underpins the issue, using a profile of a researcher as her narrative lens. It’s good stuff, and a reminder that long form journalism, well done, illuminates better than just about anything else. The two paragraphs below, mid point through the story, really hit home:

The rejection of hard-won knowledge is by no means a new phenomenon. In 1905, French mathematician and scientist Henri Poincaré said that the willingness to embrace pseudo-science flourished because people “know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether illusion is not more consoling.” Decades later, the astronomer Carl Sagan reached a similar conclusion: Science loses ground to pseudo-science because the latter seems to offer more comfort. “A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,” Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. “There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.”

Looking back over human history, rationality has been the anomaly. Being rational takes work, education, and a sober determination to avoid making hasty inferences, even when they appear to make perfect sense. Much like infectious diseases themselves — beaten back by decades of effort to vaccinate the populace — the irrational lingers just below the surface, waiting for us to let down our guard.

I’m not a scientist, but educated by the Jesuits as I was, I have a deep respect for facts and the scientific method. And no, facts are not immutable things, established facts can and do shift as new research is done, peer reviewed, put in the public sphere and debated. It’s this relentless questioning that has lifted us to the point we’re at today, with new wonders appearing seemingly by the minute, new solutions to old problems appearing often as fast. But science is hobbled by this simple thing – facts and “things known” still must be questioned. And this provides the crack that irrationality drives a wedge into every time, the idea that even scientists who strongly believe can’t every be true to science and say they are totally sure.

So when it comes time to debate, on any issue of significant import, facts will lose out. Because facts don’t offer hope, at least not easy hope.

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